Fun with(out) Sacrifice Bunts

By Bill
Yesterday, via the excellent @junkstats (who basically just comes up with great stuff like the following all day), I happened to notice this:

To which @jordansmed added this:!/jordansmed/status/166612427507630080

This is the kind of thing that probably shouldn’t be that surprising — we know the style of play has changed a ton over the last century, and one of the biggest differences is that players (even good ones) used to bunt a lot more — but it caught me off-guard a bit. Twenty-one is a lot of outs for the best hitter in the history of the game to give away in one season. Babe had a .493 OBP that season, and a .359 batting average. He likely cost himself 4-5 walks and 6-7 hits, including at least one HR (1.5, by his season ratios). Those sac bunts probably cost Babe a fifth 50-homer season, and cost his team a lot more than that. Some other fun, or not-so-fun, bunting facts:
The New/Old Hit King?Ty Cobb gave himself up to move the runner over 291 times, the 12th-highest figure of all time, and nonetheless racked up 4,189 hits. Pete Rose picked up 67 more hits, and bunted 235 fewer times. Pretend none of them ever sac bunted, take out some of those PAs to account for their career BB+HBP rates, and multiply what’s left by the player’s batting average, and Cobb picks up 95 more hits, Rose only 15. That yields a final total of 4,284 hits for Cobb, 4,271 for Rose.Which doesn’t mean as much as it suggests, of course. For one thing, we know that some huge number of Cobb’s hits were also bunts, and there’s often a hair-thin line between a bunt for a hit and a sacrifice; you can’t just wipe out all those sac bunts and pretend he’d be the same hitter he was. For another thing, if Rose had needed 14 more hits for Cobb’s record at the time he retired, Rose would have put off retirement for at least 14 more hits. Still, it’s fun to pretend.Modern Bunting HeroesIn all of baseball history, only 82 players have ever amassed more than 200 sacrifice bunts (see the full top 1000ish here). Seventy-seven of the 82 retired before 1940. Then there’s Dick Bartell, who lasted until ’46, and Nellie Fox, who started in 1947 and lasted until ’65. That leaves three more. Tom Glavine, with 216, is the only primary pitcher on the whole list of 82; the second-sacrifice-buntiest pitcher ever is his teammate Greg Maddux, with 180, and only 22 other pitchers in history have ever totaled as many as 100 sacrifices.Ozzie Smith is next on the list; he had more than twenty sacrifices in each of his first three years, leading the league twice. He then tapered off as he learned to hit a little bit, but still wound up with 214 of them for his career.Finally, somehow-still-active Omar Vizquel may be the very poor man’s Ozzie, but he’s bested Ozzie in at least one area: intentionally making outs in order to advance a runner. Omar has 255 of them, the most since Bartell’s 269, and the second-most since Rabbit Maranville retired with an even 300 in 1935. Because Home Runs Kill RalliesOut of those 82 players with 200 career sacrifices, only nine had even 100 career home runs. Seven of those nine had fewer than 120 homers. One of the remaining two was Harry Heilmann, with 183, who was certainly a fearsome hitter, but more of a gap-power guy; he topped out at 21 homers in a season, but went over 40 doubles eight times. The one true power hitter on the list, with 301 home runs to go with his 216 sac bunts, was Rogers Hornsby. He just missed @junkstats’ 40/20 club, with 39 homers and 22 sacs in 1929; altogether from 1927 to ’29, he hit 86 homers, slugging .633 with a 184 OPS+…and sac’ed 73 times. There have been forty-two individual seasons in which a player has hit 50 or more homers. In 30 of them, reasonably (including each of Sosa’s, pictured), the hitter in question did not successfully complete a single sacrifice bunt, and four more did it just once all year. Hack Wilson, though, in that year when he hit 56 bombs and had an all-time record 191 RBI in 1930? He bunted 18 times. Hack’s also the record holder for most sac bunts in a thirty-homer season, with 31 HR and 24 SH in 1928.

Ruth bunted 14 times in 1927, the only time a player has sacrificed even once during a season in which he hit sixty or more homers.The “Best” Bunter of All TimeHall of Famer Eddie Collins easily holds the all-time record for sacrifice hits, with 512 of them across his 25-year career, 30% more than second place. He’s nowhere near the single-season leader; Collins never even led his league in that category, though he was in the top ten eleven times. The single season record is held by the ill-fated Ray Chapman, who did it 67 times in 1917. Collins’ career high of 40 is tied for 36th. But the thing is, most guys who bunt a ton in any given year aren’t good enough hitters to hang around; Collins was one of the best hitters of his day, with a career 141 OPS+, so he got to hang around and keep bunting 20-40 times a year for decades. We could do what we did above with Cobb and Rose, and conclude that Collins’ bunting cost himself 147 hits (along with a ton of walks), which would’ve moved him from 3315 to 3462, or from tenth to sixth on the all-time list. But how about the other way? What if we just count all those sacrifice bunts as the outs they were (or should have been, assuming adequate defense)? For some reason, sacrifice bunts have never been counted in OBP (while sacrifice flies have), so Collins’ slash line didn’t suffer at all from all those times he willingly coughed up an out. So, those 512 outs go back in as at-bats, like a near-full season of .000/.000/.000. Collins’ line, by my reckoning, falls from .333/.424/.429 to .317/.406/.408, losing 16 points of batting average and nearly 40 of OPS (falling from 26th all-time in BA to somewhere in the 60s, but of course to be fair, we’d really have to apply the same adjustment to everyone else).

The sac bunt isn’t always dumb, and that whole style of play is an important part of baseball history. Just some fun things to think about on what I’m guessing is going to be a slow Tuesday. I’m pretty confident that Ruth bunted approximately 113 times too many, however…


About Bill

Bill is an employment lawyer and baseball geek. Also a comedy geek, and just a geek generally.